Environment: The Chernobyl Cover-Up

Are Soviet officials still concealing the truth about the disaster?

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The Soviet government's first reaction to the 1986 catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear plant was to hide it from the world. Only when confronted with irrefutable evidence did officials admit that one of the plant's reactors had exploded, releasing a radioactive cloud that spread over the country and across Europe.

But some Soviet politicians and scientists now claim that a cover-up is still going on. They charge that 1) the accident released at least 20 times more radiation than the government has admitted, 2) Communist officials failed to evacuate nearby towns and cities right away, although they knew of the danger, and 3) the Soviet nuclear establishment had known that the Chernobyl design was unsafe. "I believe we must launch an investigation and learn who was responsible," says Alexei Yablokov, deputy chairman of the Committee on Ecology and the Rational Use of Natural Resources in the Congress of People's Deputies, the new Soviet legislature.

Allegations of a continuing Chernobyl cover-up have been quietly circulating in the Soviet Union for some time. But the scandal has now broken into the open, thanks to an article in the Moscow News, an outspoken (since glasnost) weekly newspaper. Under the headline THE BIG LIE, the paper reported on a round-table discussion it had organized on the Chernobyl issue. The party officials, journalists and lawmakers who took part recited a litany of accusations against such prominent citizens as former Ukrainian party boss Vladimir Shcherbitsky; Yevgeni Chazov, the Soviet Minister of Health; Anatoli Aleksandrov, former head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences; and Yuri Izrael, chairman of the State Committee on Hydrometeorology.

Much of what the critics say is based on secret documents and firsthand experience, and will be hard for the government to refute. People's Deputy Yuri Voronezhtsev, from Byelorussia, near Chernobyl, says medical records contradict the official claim that iodine was given to all of those exposed to radiation in order to prevent the absorption of radioactive iodine by the thyroid gland. Another Byelorussian, writer Ales Adamovich, says local officials ignored the appeals of a physicist to evacuate the area until he showed them that party headquarters itself was contaminated.

Another legislator, Yuri Shcherbak, notes that the decision to evacuate residents of the town of Chernobyl, which is just 14 km (9 miles) from the plant, was not made until May 2, six days after the accident. By April 30, he says, radiation in nearby Kiev (pop. 2.6 million) had risen to 100 times safe levels. The authorities knew that, according to Shcherbak, but "the population was not warned."

In the Narodichi district, 68 km (42 miles) from the reactor, according to local party official Valentin Budko, "the evacuation of children was finished only on June 7. Little wonder that there are so many sick children in our district, especially those with hyperplasia of the thyroid gland." This and other radiation-related disorders, like leukemia, have allegedly been misreported as more innocent sounding conditions.

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